Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Pending Deficit May Bring Cuts

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Pending Deficit May Bring Cuts

Article excerpt

SARASOTA -- City employees could face layoffs and higher medical premiums this year as officials brace for another deficit caused by the lingering down economy.

Sarasota's annual budget process is months away, but the city's top financial officer and commissioners are already planning to get ahead of an estimated $4 million to $5 million deficit brought on by increasing personnel costs and debt.

"It's pretty grim," City Commissioner Terry Turner said. "We're facing another big budget problem, and I want to be dealing with it sooner rather than later."

Regionally, municipalities are struggling to do more with less as they also face rising costs and falling revenues.

Venice last year offset a $3 million deficit with deep cuts. And in Bradenton, officials have raised tax rates the last two years after seeing a steady five-year drop in all the city's major revenue streams.

Sarasota -- and its taxpayers -- must deal with $329 million in unfunded obligations to retirees for pensions and medical care, budget documents show.

The city is also slowly paying back more than $144 million in loans and bonds for various projects, including $46 million borrowed for the new police headquarters.

Those obligations, coupled with the erosion of property values and in turn declining tax revenues, are draining the city's general fund.

Services such as street sweeping and trash pickup have already been pared in recent years, and last year the city picked up new costs for parks, leaving commissioners to look next to cutting staff.

"There's lots of things you can cut," Finance Director Chris Lyons said. "But when most of your budget is personnel, what are you going to do?"

More than 80 percent of the general fund, the commission's discretionary pot of money where property taxes go, is spent on personnel, including police.

About 183 positions have been eliminated in the last four years, but there could be another round of layoffs among the remaining 567 full-time employees.

A split City Commission voted last year to dip into reserves and to raise the property tax rate to avoid layoffs and maintain services.

Unless another politically sticky tax rate hike is approved this year, staff cuts appear inevitable, commissioners said. …

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